In 1984, the world’s first commercial, magnetic levitated train began operations at Birmingham International Airport in the UK. While travelling at a top speed of just 26 miles per hour, for those that worked on the project, it was nonetheless a historical moment.
After decades of research that began in the 1940s with British electrical engineer Eric Laithwaite – known as the ‘father of maglev’ – the concept of powering a train using magnetic suspension had been realised for the first time.
“There was a positive mood,” remembers Roger Goodall, professor at Loughborough University and a key participant in the creation of the Birmingham maglev system. “The dream as people envisaged it at the time was written: a train with no contact, mechanical simplicity, high efficiency and low noise.”
Since then a number of maglev trains have become operational. In Japan, the Linimo line, which uses electromagnetic levitation technology, serves a local community in the Aichi Prefecture, close to the city of Nagoya. In Shanghai, arguably the most famous maglev train can be found running across a stretch from Pudong International airport to the outskirts of the city.
“There is no train in the world that can match the kind of kind of performance that you see in that 19-mile connection,” says Laurence Blow, founder of the MaglevTransport consulting group. “It can be done in seven and a half minutes and you hit a top speed of 267 miles an hour.”
High speed, low maintenance
More recently, Japan has been building a new maglev line, the Chuo Shinkansen, which broke speed records by travelling at 603km/h on a test track near Mount Fuji; in Beijing, a new middle-to-low speed maglev called Line S1 is under construction and is expected to begin operating soon; while in the US, the Northeast Maglev project envisages a maglev train that could cut the distance from Washington DC to New York to just an hour.
The benefits of maglev are hard to contest. By replacing wheels and supporting machinery with electromagnets or super-conducting magnets, levitating trains are able to reach incredible speeds. Preventing interaction between wheels and rail also means less noise, vibration and mechanical failure, and fewer problems in the event of bad weather.
“All these problems emanate from the physical contact between the wheel and the rail,” says Blow. “The fundamental benefit of maglev is to take away that interaction. Some people say that once you’ve put a guideway in place for a magnetic levitation machine, you never have to replace or even maintain it.”
Despite these few notable success stories, however, few can say with confidence that “the dream” Goodall and others envisaged back in the 1970s has been fully realised. For all their benefits, elevated trains have largely failed to reach the mainstream in the way many back then expected.
“A technology that has been going for fifty years usually does a nose dive into the ground or takes off,” says Goodall. “Maglev has kind of just rumbled along and people keep rediscovering it and getting terribly excited about it.”
Cost concerns over innovative rail
The primary challenge facing maglev trains has always been cost. While all large-scale transportation systems are expensive, maglev requires a dedicated infrastructure including substations and power supplies and cannot be integrated directly into an existing transportation system. The failed proposal for a 1,300km Beijing to Shanghai maglev line in 2005 highlights this problem.
“There was already a railway system between the two cities,” says Goodall. “When they started to analyse it they realised that it was just a lot cheaper to upgrade that line rather than build a completely new alignment with completely new technology. Therein lies the rub with maglev.”
Japan’s Shinkansen – which runs from Tokyo to Osaka at speeds of up to 505km/h – has also been criticised for being too capital-intensive. The scheme is expected to cost an eye-watering $49bn but could end up totally even more.
“The maglev constitutes not only an extraordinarily costly but also an abnormally energy-wasting project, consuming in operation between four and five times as much power as the Tokaido Shinkansen,” the Japanese researchers Hidekazu Aoki and Nobuo Kawamiya wrote earlier this year.
Alongside the financial challenges is a lack of market opportunities to build a mainline maglev.
“There are three criteria you need to fulfil,” says Goodall, “The first is a large megacity at both ends; the second is a distance of about 500 miles because if the cities are too close it’s not worth going fast and if they are too far air travel comes into its own; and the third is having no existing railway. There are a very limited number of cases where all these criteria obtain.”
Too many enemies, too few friends
Maglev trains also have no obvious constituency in the transportation and investment community, a fact Blow has consistently struggled with in his thirty plus years of advocacy in the US.
“Maglev is a competitor to automobiles, trains and airplanes, as well as buses and metro-systems,” Blow says. “It has many natural enemies but no natural friends. It has been an outgrowth of the scientific community and by and large scientists do not dominate transportation.”
While the cost of running a maglev over long distances remains prohibitive, opportunities for intra-city urban transportation such as the Beijing Line S1 do still exist, according to Goodall.
“Unlike high-speed, there are a lot of market opportunities here,” he says. “With low-to-medium speed maglevs in city centres you really get the benefit of low noise and low vibration.”
For his part, Blow remains convinced that the biggest pay off with maglev lies in “connecting cities”, but doubts the technology will become widespread any time soon.
“It is doubtful as things stand that it will ever enter the mainstream of transportation technology,” he says, adding that maglev will have “to fight for everything that it gets”.